Jemima Kirke On Abortion, Sex And Bravery

'Sex is our god-given indulgence, the one that doesn't hurt us'

Jemima Kirke

by Jane Mulkerrins |
Updated on

Jemima Kirke is late. So late, in fact, that I’m wondering whether I’ve perhaps got the date of our breakfast meeting wrong, when she arrives at the Brooklyn café-cum-bar, with an explanation that’s impossible not to forgive. She’s come straight from the hospital, where she’s spent two nights sleeping upright in a plastic chair; her boyfriend of two years, Australian musician Alex Cameron, fell off some scaffolding while shooting a video and has broken both of his wrists and most of the bones in one hand. ‘I had to feed him a sandwich for breakfast,’ says Jemima, who, even make-up-free, looks maddeningly beautiful for someone who has just slept in a chair. ‘He can still use his fingers, though, so I had to tell him to get off his phone while he was eating. What am I, a plate? Technically, we were having breakfast together, and it was bad manners.’ Jemima didn’t actually get to have any breakfast of her own, though, so we order coffee and granola.

It’s a decade since the British-born 34- year-old first agreed to take part in the pilot episode of a TV series that her high school best friend, Lena Dunham, was writing. But she was very much a painter, not an actress, she always insisted. The pilot, of course, became Girls, running for six critically acclaimed seasons, and propelling Jemima to fame as the wild, bohemian Jessa Johansson. Still, she remained a ‘reluctant actress’. ‘I’m much more comfortable with it now,’ she says. ‘But I was protective of my career as a painter, because I know that the title “actor” – if you have any recognition for being an actor – will swallow up anything else that you do. I also believed the message from the art world that, if you are a serious artist, that is what you devote your life to, and that it’s obsessive and crazy and all-consuming. But as you get older, you work really hard to try and undo those archetypes.’

These days, she happily embraces both – she is working on paintings for a new exhibition while her latest film, Wild Honey Pie!, is released in the UK later this week. The Welsh-set indie comedy-drama – by Jamie Adams, who doesn’t write full scripts, instead asking his actors to improvise – stars Jemima as a tempestuous playwright whose marriage has hit a rocky patch. She’s not a million miles away from Jessa in personality. ‘Because it was so improvised and I hadn’t really had much experience playing anyone else, I’m sure I fell back on some old crutches,’ says Jemima. ‘But I also liked the idea of mixing those characters together. I wondered what someone like Jessa would be like if she lived in Wales and had married her friend from college. What happens when we keep a girl like that confined and enclosed in a small town? Things implode.’

Jemima also recently appeared in Untogether, a semi-autobiographical film written and directed by Emma Forrest, in which she played a recovering heroin addict and self-harmer. Jemima has been open about her own wayward past, which landed her in rehab several times. But, unlike many of her characters, she is also thoughtful and reflective, with strong opinions on, among other things, the prudishness of mainstream American culture. ‘It annoys me that people lump “sex and drugs” into one category,’ she declares. ‘Sex is our god-given indulgence, the one that doesn’t hurt us. It is completely for pleasure. But girls are so ashamed about sex in their teens that it’s more common for them to start doing drugs than have sex. That’s why we have drug addiction, but nobody knows how to really be intimate.’

She has written about being raped by a drug dealerin her early twenties and, before most others began speaking out on the subject, four years ago went public with the story of the abortion she had while at art school, in a video supporting the Center for Reproductive Rights. ‘I haven’t written anything about the most recent rolling back of abortion rights, because I’m angry with the way these issues are talked about, leaving out race,’ she says today. ‘Abortion laws are another blow for women and our rights, of course, but we’re talking about Alabama here – it really is another blow for keeping black people in poverty, keeping them oppressed and having babies and getting arrested and being miserable mothers. If a woman cannot choose whether she wants to have the baby or not, you create unhappy families.’

Jemima’s own upbringing was the opposite; by her own admission, she was ‘an entitled privileged little brat’. The daughter of drummer Simon Kirke and Lorraine, an interior designer who owned the New York boutique Geminola, she is the granddaughter of the British billionaire Jack Dellal – model Alice, shoe designer Charlotte and art gallery-owner Alex Dellal are her cousins. Her parents left London for Manhattan when Jemima was 11 (sisters Domino and Lola were 13 and six; brother Gregory was 16). At the famously liberal high school St Ann’s in Brooklyn, she met Lena Dunham, and forged a tight and lasting friendship.

Jemima was Lena’s date for the Met Gala last month, in matching rubber outfits (the theme was Notes on Camp) custom-made for them by Christopher Kane. ‘The gloves were so tight we had to put them on with lube,’ she laughs. ‘Taking them off, your whole arm smelt like a dorm room.’ The starriest night in the fashion calendar is a spectacle, but is it actually fun, I ask. ‘I like seeing the insanity of the incredible clothing up close. And I like seeing people like Kim Kardashian in the flesh, and being like, oh my god, she’s so short – and she’s so stunning.’ But there are, she says, aspects that she finds jarring. ‘One woman came up to us and said, “Oh, you’re so brave.”’ She rolls her eyes. ‘That’s something Lena gets a lot, and it bugs me. It makes her into some sort of warrior and assumes that she doesn’t feel amazing and confident. Brave is doing something that scares you. And you’re assuming that I’d be scared to wear what I’m wearing.’ She gives me a mischievous look. ‘So I said to her, “No, you’re brave.” She was this gorgeous, tall, thin blonde in a beautiful dress. I thought, well, if you think that’s a compliment, let’s see how you like it.’

Jemima and Lena Dunham at this year's Met Gala
Jemima and Lena Dunham at this year's Met Gala

Last time Jemima and I met, in February 2017, she was very recently divorced from her husband of seven years, lawyer Michael Mosberg, 42, the father of her two children, Rafaella, now eight, and Memphis, six. She met Alex a few months later, when she directed a music video for him. She seems happier than I’ve seen her in years. ‘I am, I really am,’ she enthuses. ‘I never thought I wanted to be with another artist. It just felt like it could be an explosion of narcissism, with no balance. And it can be sometimes,’ she laughs. They don’t live together. ‘He is still very much my boyfriend. The kids love him, but they already have a dad,’ she says. Would she marry again? ‘For the wedding, for the party,’ she nods. ‘But I always call him my husband anyway. Boyfriend isn’t a real title. And I’ve been saying “husband” a lot at the hospital, of course, because it has a lot more power with the nurses.’

She’s prepared for the fact that, with him incapacitated, she may have to do more tending than usual. ‘Alex sometimes acts like he has two broken wrists anyway,’ she says wryly. ‘So it will be fun to see what it’s like for him to actually be incapable of doing things for himself.’

‘Wild Honey Pie!’ is at cinemas on 14 June

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us